Interview with Oksana Dutchak, researcher based in Ukraine and activist of Essential Autonomous Struggles Transnational (E.A.S.T). She tells about the current ever-changing situation in Ukraine and local attempts at self-organisation to cope with the war. This is an edited version of an article that was first published in New Politics on March 15.
What is the situation in Ukraine and what has been the reaction of the local population to the outbreak of the war?
THE situation is very complicated. During the first days, it seemed that Russian military forces were trying not to target civilians. They were trying to destroy the military infrastructure of the country, assuming that the government and society would just give up. But it didn’t work. I’m wondering how stupid their intelligence was: their calculation was a total mistake. It didn’t work because the army started to act and people on the ground started to act.
It gives some hope, but it changed their tactic definitely and dramatically. Now they are attacking civilians. This change in tactics means two things. Firstly they feel like they made a huge mistake at the beginning with this calculation. But secondly, it is very dangerous for civilians. As for the civilian population, many Western leftists now blame Nato. But nobody did more to encourage the local population to support Nato and the idea of joining Nato than Russia is doing now. Just now there has been a poll, according to which a record 76% support the idea. This is mostly because of skyrocketing figures in the areas that usually oppose Nato – the Eastern and Southern Region.
The population has become very anti-Russian now. By trying to make Ukraine a country under their total influence, they are achieving the opposite – the majority of people are now very against Russia. There are people who are not radically anti-Russia. But it is hard when you see what is happening; for example the bombing in Kharkiv, which is one of the biggest cities in Ukraine and a predominantly Russian- speaking city. The level of hate is very high now. It is explainable. It is hard in these circumstances to perceive Russia differently.
People in the Ukrainian Left have been talking about it for a while already but usually, it has been in vain; nobody paid attention. Now we see how Russia is trying to restore its imperial power, with very bad outcomes for us, for Russians, and for the stability of the world. I have friends who have stayed in cities that are under attack and relatives who could not get out or did not want to. Many of them are preparing for guerrilla warfare. That’s also a huge miscalculation on the side of the Russian government. I don’t know if they really believed it or not, but their message was that the Ukrainian people will greet us on the ground. Instead, we see footage of unarmed civilians just stopping tanks on their way. It is also probably one of the reasons why they changed tactics and decided to start airstrikes on civilians to demoralise them. You can’t stop planes by blocking the road, unarmed.
There are also cases where people have attacked tanks with Molotov cocktails etc. Kyiv is preparing for guerrilla warfare, and many other cities too. Even if their calculation somehow works out and they are able to install a puppet government here, the occupying government won’t last long. It will be a total spiral of escalation, involving the civilian population. Not all people are doing that, but it is hard not to do it when such things are happening. I think that in many settlements people would also try to resist peacefully. But if the airstrikes destroy towns, it will be hard to resist in any form.
The outbreak of a full-blown war in Ukraine has been prepared by weeks of war rhetoric on both the US and Russian sides. How do feminist and workers organisations in Ukraine position themselves in the ongoing situation?
Different organisations have reacted differently. Some people are trying to volunteer and norganise some support for civilians. There is a lot of self-organisation going underground to support the evacuation of people, to help them reach a safe place, but also to support people who are left in the cities, who cannot go or don’t want to go, but who are lacking medicine or food. Also, some grassroots initiatives are preparing for guerrilla war in organised but also in unorganised ways.
Many are using their external connections with people abroad to help those who are crossing the border, because they need a place to stay in Poland, Romania, Moldova. This is what anarchists, feminists and Left organisations are also doing. There is a lot of self-organisation connected both to helping civilians and to preparing for the upcoming invasions in the city.
Is it possible to build an opposition against this war without falling into the alternative between Nato and Russia?
I had discussions with leftist people from other countries and I am sometimes surprised at how they are afraid of putting too little blame on Nato. They are trying to put in every sentence that “Nato is also to blame”. For sure, Nato can be blamed at some point, but when the bombs start falling from the sky, only Russia can be blamed for the bombing. From here on the ground, the situation looks different because we see how the Russian government behaves. They are not willing to give up their plans. We can hardly say let’s keep Russia and Nato away from here because it is only Russia who invaded Ukraine. It is not Nato who is bombing the cities. It is very obvious here.
You cannot say: Let’s not take sides. You cannot avoid taking sides, especially when you are here. I don’t advise people from the Left in Western or Eastern European countries to say that we are not taking sides. Not taking sides here would mean washing their hands.
A friend told me that Nato is also guilty. After everything is over we will have a very nationalist, xenophobic country and other problems. So I answered him: sure, we probably will. But I will think about that later when there is no shelling of cities and when there is no Russian army here. We can’t solve these problems now. We can talk about them, but we can’t ignore the elephant in the room.
Some leftist people are saying that the way out is to negotiate and agree on the neutrality of Ukraine. It is hard for me to support this at the moment. This position is a little bit colonial: it denies also the sovereignty of the country. It is up to the people in the country to decide what they want to do. And for them to be able to decide, there must be no war. As I’ve said, this war made decisions for many Ukrainians. People say there is always a choice. But most Ukrainians don’t see a choice now.
We are not denying our agency. Some people on the Left – in the Western Left – are denying our agency. They’re telling us what Ukrainians should do. It sounds very nice to say that Ukraine should not take any side, should not be in any block, should keep neutral status. But we see from history that neutral status is reserved for strong states, for rich states, for states who can defend themselves. Ukraine could not defend itself from the attack. It is trying to do so now, but I don’t know how long we can continue.
After 2014’s annexation of Crimea, talking about neutral status for Ukraine is very hard. Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons and it got guarantee of security, that its territory would be integral, it would not be attacked by any state. This guarantee was signed by several countries, including the US, Britain, and Russia. This security guarantee was violated in 2014 by Russia. After that, I don’t think it would be so easy for society to trust guarantees any longer. We saw how such a guarantee is not working. It doesn’t have any legal or any other kind of consequences. It can be violated at any point. So I don’t know how we can escape the alternative between Russia and Nato now. I don’t have an answer at the moment.